How generous and benign Heaven sometimes shows itself by pouring out on a single person the infinite riches of its treasures, and all those rarer graces and gifts that it is wont to distribute to several individuals, over a long space of time. ..
Giorgio Vasari on Raphael, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568 quote)
Perhaps the best way to explore the enduring appeal of Raphael, 16th century painter – is currently the subject of a successful exhibition at the National Gallery in London – is to begin with an explicit moment of rejection.
In 1848, a new group of painters called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood identified Raphael’s art as a watershed moment for Western art. They adopted the name “Pre-Raphaelites” to signal the intention of their movement to maintain the qualities which characterized Italian quattrocento art (15th century art).
With regard to the Pre-Raphaelites, the works of the Italians quattrocento artists – like Raphael’s teacher Fra Bartolomeo, Massaccio, Fra Angelico and particularly Sandro Botticelli – showed meticulous attention to nature and were characterized by meticulous attention to detail. All of this was arranged in surprisingly intricate and pleasing compositions; quattrocento the art was considered both beautiful and truthful.
In contrast, the group considered Raphael (and his contemporaries Michelangelo and particularly Correggio) work as mannered and over-executed. In their works, the brotherhood believed that realism gave way to exaggerated poses, and attention to detail was eclipsed by an almost abstract emphasis on shapes and forms. Truthful attention to nature, they said, has been sidelined in favor of an exaggerated and overly polished idea of an artificial “art.”
This rejection was best summed up by John Ruskins, the writer most closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He lamented in 1845 that Raphael’s work in Rome was so perfect that it could only be followed by an inevitable period of decline:
The perfection of execution and beauty of line which were attained in these works and in those of his greatest contemporaries, made finish of execution and beauty of form the chief objects of all artists; and henceforth they sought execution rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity.
In other words, Raphael’s stylistic emphasis on beauty, serenity and grace had become an end in itself. Art became art for art’s sake, and a manicured idea of a perfect ideal replaced an honest, truthful focus on nature.
As a result, Raphael has become easy to ignore. But it is this notion of appetizing but superficial eye candy that the National Gallery exhibition, simply titled “Raphael”, seeks to challenge.
There is certainly more to Raphael than blonde Madonnas and lush nudes. Besides being an accomplished painter, he was celebrated as a great architect. He delights his customers with sets of monumental frescoes and splendid sets of tapestries. A prolific draftsman and engraver, he was also in the process of compiling an archaeological survey of the monuments of Rome.
He ran one of the most productive studios in town, which was able to turn to commissions in many genres and media. Raphael was an accomplished courtier and businessman, enduring a workload none of his contemporaries could match, while rarely compromising the quality of his work.
It is in fact this “perfection of execution and beauty of the lines” which marked these works; for Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites it marked a watershed moment of decline. But for Raphael’s contemporaries, the grace, serenity and beauty of the works were why they were so desirable. For a patron of the 16th century, owning a work by Raphael was an important marker of his own identity and reputation.
In 1972, art historian Michael Baxandall wrote that “a 15th century painting is the repository of a social relationship”. For his patrons, Raphael’s images signaled their belonging to an educated and privileged elite who shared moral and political values. By displaying their Raphael, they made it visible.
No other painter could satisfy this need in an image-hungry Rome. Who was there? Michelangelo, the socially awkward loner happier with a chisel in hand than running a workshop? Leonardo? As Ruskin observed quite vigorously in 1853, “Leonardo spent his life in engineering, so that there is hardly a picture left to bear his name”.
Although he died relatively young (compared to some of his peers) at the age of 37 in April 1520, Raphael has become synonymous with the image of Renaissance Rome in the same way that Hans Holbein is. become synonymous with creating the image of Henry VIII. Easy to stereotype, easy to ignore, but well worth a second or even third look.
The triumph of the National Gallery exhibition is to bring together these myriad aspects of Raphael’s output and invite us all to look again.